The Trouble with Symptoms in Education Terms
In education it is more often than not that we treat the symptom and ignore the underlying cause. In life we will often hide the true cause of our distress by adopting or presenting the symptoms of a much lesser illness, perhaps a cold instead of stress or depression. It is no different in education where we may present a symptom rather than admit the cause.
Let me give you an example, that of attendance in schools. Interestingly when we want a day off school we are more likely to feign the symptoms of an illness rather than just come out and say “I need a day off”.
Attendance can be an issue in many schools and a symptom in itself that could signal underlying problems yet it is dealt with as if it is the primary issue. Our actions are to make the symptom go away, make students attend school.
The standard response to an issue is to adopt the two P’s strategy, praise and punish. Praise the behaviour we want and punish the behaviour we don’t want, the “carrot and stick” approach. This rather simplistic model will evolve to include praise in the form of rewards or certificates for levels of attendance that are acceptable or sought after and forms of punishment for those that fall short including detentions, letters home, and perhaps loss of privileges such as school trips. Sound familiar?
The trouble with the two P’s form of response is that it takes up a great deal of time, pits the offender against the teacher or school and only deals with suppressing the symptom and does not deal with the underlying cause. We are establishing compliance and not promoting learning.
A strategy I use when looking at behaviours as a symptom rather than a primary issue is to ask the question “Why would someone behave in this way?” After all why would somebody not want to come to school, unthinkable right!
Firstly school is a “learning environment” and one full of challenges, relationships, groups, rules, customs, expectations, etc. Indeed school is a complex environment and one that can be both nurturing and toxic depending on your disposition and experiences. We respond to our environment in ways that we have learnt “work” for us. Unfortunately nature has a significant influence when it comes to the environment and the “flight or fight” response so involved with survival can take over our thinking and behaviours.
If we find a certain learning environment more than mildly uncomfortable then without the right set of tools and strategies to deal with it we are likely to flee rather than stay and work out a solution. Thus a lack of attendance may be the only strategy a learner has developed to deal with finding themselves in, what is to them, a toxic environment. By dealing with the symptom we are doing nothing to help address the underlying cause. It is my experience that once the learner has been made aware of this and coached in developing at least the basic strategies then they can cope. Given more time and support they can even begin to master their environment.
This idea of understanding and mastering your learning environment is an underlying principle of the concept of Learning intelligence or “LQ” that I have developed. LQ is based on my experience as a teacher and accepted learning theories and forms a narrative for working with learners.
Returning to attendance then my advice is to explore it as if it is behaviour in response to a situation.
Find out what the situation is and you’re on your way to a solution. Better still develop in the learner an awareness of LQ and provide opportunities to develop skills and to have experiences of managing their learning environment to meet their needs in a constructive way that supports learning.
Take the “fight or flight” response and turn it into “fight to learn and learn to ignore flight”